Towards a new European Deal for the Future: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in a Fragmented and Multipolar World 1
In June 2024, the citizens of the European Union (EU) will not only elect the new European Parliament and chart the way to the formation of the next European Commission, both in charge until 2029, but also lay the foundations for the future of the EU and its global role well into the next decade. Political parties campaigning for the European elections and the future leaders of the EU have historic responsibilities. European citizens and civil society, political parties and European institutions need to enhance European democracy, social cohesion and prosperity within planetary boundaries and strengthen the EU’s global engagement for a cooperative world order. Decisive actions must be taken in the EU and globally before 2030 to avoid irreversible environmental and dangerous social tipping points and to maintain a chance of attaining key global goals, including the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. The incoming EU leaders will also be responsible for determining the next EU seven-year budget (2028–2035) and negotiating the next global agenda for sustainable development to continue the SDGs beyond 2030.
In today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the EU’s leadership of global cooperation to achieve sustainable development is critical. We identify ten priority actions to accelerate SDG implementation in the EU and internationally and support a strong and unified EU response to today’s geopolitical, social, environmental, technological, and financial challenges. We call on the political parties competing for the European Parliament to embrace these ten priority actions in their respective campaigns and platforms. These priority actions are jointly directed at the next European Parliament, the next European Commission, the European Council, and the member states.
In a world experiencing multiple overlapping crises, sustainable development faces strong headwinds, globally and in Europe. Geopolitical tensions, wars, and security crises in Ukraine, the Middle East, the Sahel, South Sudan and many other parts of the world are causing humanitarian disasters and represent major impediments to global cooperation. Humanity is eroding the biological and physical resilience of the Earth’s systems. Scientific evidence points to increased likelihood of reaching dangerous and irreversible environmental tipping points during this decade.1 Around the globe, social cohesion is under pressure. Inequality, poverty, and hunger are mounting, contributing to societal polarization, populism, and unrest. Civil society, including academic institutions, is becoming more constrained amid intensifying political tensions. Challenging economic conditions and fiscal-space issues make it particularly difficult for low-and middle-income countries to respond to crises, and roughly half of the countries in the world lack the fiscal space needed to adequately invest in the SDGs. Over 50 countries, comprising 3.3 billion people, are in the grip of debt crises, spending more annually on debt service than on health care.2 The international financial architecture is failing to channel global savings to SDG investments at the pace and scale needed.
Progress on sustainable development is strained in a world plagued by wars, terrorism, financial crises, and societal polarization. Yet the SDGs – adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 and oriented towards 2030 – provide a common agenda that can and should bring humanity together and help to chart a way out of these crises. The goals call for integrated actions to promote social and economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, and global cooperation. At the midpoint of the Agenda, however, none of the 17 SDGs are on track to be achieved globally by 2030.3 Of their 169 individual targets, 85% are declining or show insufficient progress.4
Despite these challenges, the SDGs still garner political traction both internationally and locally.5 Multiple UN assessments and academic studies have found that the goals are still financially and technically attainable. They remain the world’s only globally accepted set of goals for sustainable development. In its September 2023 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, the G20 reaffirmed its commitment to full and effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda and to accelerating progress towards the SDGs. And at the UN SDG Summit later that month, all Member States similarly resolved that the 2030 Agenda remains their overarching roadmap for achieving sustainable development and overcoming the world’s current crises.6 In December 2023, at COP28 in Dubai, all countries present emphasized that the interconnected global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss must be addressed in the broader context of achieving the SDGs, including a call to transition energy systems away from fossil fuels to achieve net zero by 2050.7 Young generations all over the world are increasingly concerned about the consequences of climate change and want to hold governments and private companies accountable for their actions. The UN Summit of the Future: Multilateral Solutions for a Better Tomorrow, to take place in September 2024, aims to reinforce UN and global governance structures to better address old and new challenges and to formulate a ‘Pact for the Future’ to help advance achievement of the SDGs by 2030.8 The next UN SDG Summit is scheduled for September 2027.
What is really needed are coalitions of thought leaders who can build viable political coalitions to push for truly sustainable – and more-equitable – development, both globally and in Europe.9
Back in 2015, the EU and its member states demonstrated this kind of thought leadership when they championed the negotiations and eventual adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, alongside the Paris Climate Agreement.10 Yet although some policy and technical agencies of the European Commission were mobilized to develop integrated SDG actions and monitoring processes, the EU and its member states initially dragged their feet when it came to implementing the SDGs.11 While the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) had called for a European ‘Green and Social Deal’ from the start, it wasn’t until after the European Parliament elections in 2019 and the formation of the current Commission that the EU launched a truly ambitious transformation agenda, becoming – via the European Green Deal – the first continent to commit to achieving net zero emissions by mid-century.12 In July 2023, the EU delivered to the UN its first voluntary review of the EU’s progress towards implementing the 2030 Agenda, including civil society contributions coordinated by the EESC.13 European regulations on sustainability are now frequently regarded as a global benchmark, influencing the behaviour of institutions, consumers, investors, businesses, farmers, NGOs, and social organisations.
However, the EU still needs to develop a comprehensive plan if it is to truly integrate the European Green Deal for a climate-neutral Europe, as well as other transformations, into a broader overarching strategy to achieve the SDGs, including their social and international dimensions, as repeatedly called for by the European Parliament, the EESC, and civil society at large.14 Targets, timelines, roadmaps and integrated long-term planning are required to clarify how the EU proposes to achieve the 17 SDGs in a holistic manner – rather than segment- ing the goals to tackle them individually. In a step in the right direction, on 22 November 2023, the European Parliament adopted a series of amendments to EU Treaties aimed at strengthening SDG implementation within the EU and in the Union’s external actions.15 These amendments incorporate more ambitious provisions to reduce global warming, safeguard biodiversity, promote non-discrimination and diversity, improve health and education outcomes, ensure full employment, and accelerate social progress.
As this report shows, insufficient progress has been made in Europe on the SDGs related to climate, sustainable food systems, and responsible production and consumption. The EU and its member states also score poorly on the International Spillover Index. For several years now, the SDSN and partners have documented the unequal progress on sustainable development across European countries - and convergence among them has stalled16 - while the Leave-No-One-Behind Index also highlights persistent gaps in living conditions and opportunities across population groups within European countries that must also be urgently addressed.
Not only have the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and geo-economic tensions shifted political priorities and financial resources in Europe, but societal fragmentation and political polarization are growing across the region, leading to pushbacks against more ambitious legislation in the EU to implement the European Green Deal and other policies that aim to promote social cohesion and equality.17 However, this is not the time to backtrack or water down what has already been agreed upon and accomplished. Instead, European citizens and political parties should use the upcoming elections to lay the groundwork for a new European Deal for the Future that responds to the multiple crises by deepening implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement and 2030 Agenda along with the SDGs in an ambitious, integrated, and coherent manner, including a longer-term perspective for the EU extending into mid-century.
We call on the incoming European Parliament, the next European Commission, and the European Council to adopt, within a year following the election, a Joint Political Statement reaffirming the EU’s Commitment for the SDGs and preparing for the next decades of global sustainable development. In issuing this statement, the three pillars of EU governance would reaffirm their commitment to the 2030 Agenda towards achieving the SDGs in a fragmented multipolar world faced with multiple planetary, security, financial and societal crises. This would also send a clear and strong message to the rest of the world about the importance Europeans place on the universal SDG vision and framework. Furthermore, such a joint political statement should pave the way to outlining the EU’s position on the global agenda for sustainable development post-2030 ahead of the next SDG Summit in 2027. The tasks of sustainable development – ensuring human well-being and security, social inclusion and justice, environmental sustainability, global cooperation, and peace – are not just tasks towards 2030. The EU played a vital role leading up to the adoption of the SDGs, joining key developing countries to push for a truly global agenda for sustainable development that would call on all nations to transform themselves and the world. It should similarly be clear now about the necessity of pursuing an ambitious global agenda for sustainable development beyond 2030, possibly aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement, and oriented towards 2050. Just as the Rio+20 Summit of 2012 kicked off negotiations on the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda, the UN SDG Summit in 2027 will have to pave the way for a new deal on the future of people and the planet for the coming decades.
For the EU, we identify ten priority actions: addressing internal SDG priorities, the EU’s international leadership, and how to get the job done:
1. Respond to the Grave Danger of Negative 'Social Tipping Points' – Significantly Reduce the Risk of Poverty and Social Exclusion of European Citizens Widespread public support is needed to carry out major transformations for sustainable development, including restructuring the economy towards sustainable and inclusive well-being and the transition to a more just society.18 Scientific evidence shows that humanity has breached safe planetary limits, necessitating urgent shifts in societal and economic structures to balance environmental stewardship with decent living conditions. Unless the SDGs are actively pursued, geophysical tipping points combined with technological disruptions could ignite disastrous social conflicts within and between nations. We must acknowledge the real risk of negative ‘social tipping points’, beyond which peaceful governance and co-existence break down, as they did during and between World Wars I and II. In this regard, a new European Deal for the future should incorporate ambi- tious climate and biodiversity targets as well as raising the ambition of social and economic targets – including to reduce at least by half the proportion of Europeans living in or at risk of poverty or social exclusion, as called for by SDG 1 (No Poverty) – as well as ensuring access for all to high-quality health care and education.
By building on the European Green Deal and the European Pillar of Social Rights, this strategy could lead to a truly integrated implementation of the SDGs and form a new ‘European social contract’.19 The EESC In particular has long advocated for a European Green and Social Deal. The effective functioning of European democracies and institutions, which are at the heart of the sustainable development transition, depends on the capacity of EU leadership and member states to provide equal opportunities, protect the most vulnerable, and boost education and skills for all. The latest OECD/PISA results show a decline in learning outcomes of 15-year-old students, with only 7% in OECD countries (including many EU member states) reaching the highest proficiency levels in reading – a level that enables them to clearly distinguish between fact and opinion.20 In this post-truth era, strengthening the European Education Area and enhancing science literacy should remain top priorities for the next European Commission, in combination with national education policy reforms. The new Social Partner Summit, to be jointly convened by the European Commission and the Belgian Presidency at Val Duchesse in the first half of 2024, should be used as a good opportunity to advance these strategic discussions and promote social inclusion as both an outcome and an enabler of sustainable development.
2. Double down Efforts to Achieve Net-zero Emissions in the EU by 2050, with Major Breakthroughs by 2030. The European Green Deal and the European Climate Law together established a clear pathway for decarbonizing the energy system in the EU: cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In 2019, the EU became the first regional organization to adopt a bold commitment to achieving net zero emissions domestically by 2050. Today, 150+ countries have some form of net-zero target.21 Investments in renewable energy generation (primarily solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower) combined with the expansion of integrated and digital power grids can support a clean, efficient, and reliable energy transformation in the EU – one that addresses the base-load issue and promotes the EU’s strategic interests and security. Yet measures that delay or work against energy-system decarbonization, or that jeopardize the development of more sustainable food systems (farm-to-fork), weaken the EU’s position internationally and potentially hamper global efforts to achieve the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement.22 Scientific tools already exist that can support this transformation, including the latest generation of integrated assessment models and pathways.* Several guidelines and regulations have also been produced to help companies align with the SDGs, including those in the food and land sector, responsible globally for more than a quarter of total GHG emissions.23 In parallel, pathways and policy actions for climate adaptation and resilience within the EU should be strengthened.24
3. Strengthen Regional and Local Authorities in Achieving the SDGs – Regularly Monitor and Report SDG Progress at All Levels. The principle of ‘subsidiarity’ emphasizes the importance of tackling problems at the level closest to the intended outcomes. Sustainable development requires global cooperation and financing, for instance, to safeguard the Global Commons and deal with the costs of human-induced climate change in vulnerable countries. While nation-states still bear the greatest responsibilities for implementation of the SDGs, regional organizations such as the EU or ASEAN can support a massive scale-up of investments in major infrastructure, including in transportation and renewable energy grids, and reduce costs through increased regional integration and collaboration. According to UN estimates, 65% of the SDG targets cannot be achieved without the involvement of regional and local authorities, who manage a large share of public investments).25 The EU should encourage and develop the capacities of these subnational entities to implement the SDGs. Furthermore, it should push for monitoring progress on the SDGs at all levels. Ahead of the 2027 UN SDG Summit, the next European Commission should prepare a second voluntary review, based on participatory processes and extensive stakeholder engagement, to present the new European Deal for the Future to the international community as the EU’s SDG action plan. Building on the excellent work of the Committee of the Regions and urban organizations, more voluntary local reviews of European regions and cities should also be prepared: capitalising on robust data systems including geospatial technologies and identifying specific policy and financing challenges that these subnational authorities face in implementing the SDGs.26
4. Curb Negative International Spillovers and Support the Transformation Towards a Sustainable Trade System. The EU’s unsustainable consumption and supply chains continue to generate negative spillover effects on other countries.27 For example, around 40% of the greenhouse gases caused by the EU are emitted abroad; the EU’s consumption can be linked to 1.2 million people in forced labour and more than 4,000 fatal workplace accidents each year;28 biofuel mandates in Europe and other major economies have accelerated tropical deforestation and land displacement in other parts of the world; and the export of toxic pesticides and waste lead to negative health impacts abroad. Macroeconomic and financial policies also generate negative spillovers, including through unfair tax competition, profit shifting and financial secrecy.29 Transformative policies under the European Green Deal must be designed in ways that are not harmful to other regions, and that allow for jointly designed co-transformation. Building on efforts made by the current European Parliament, Commission and Council, notably via the adoption and implementation of the EU Due Diligence Regulation, future EU leaders must acknowledge, measure and curb negative spillovers and work closely with businesses and partner countries to foster more responsible production and consumption. Guided by the Better Regulation guidelines and toolbox, the EU should also increase efforts to include the SDGs in policy design and evaluation. The adoption of time-bound targets on imported carbon-emissions (and other imported impacts) at the EU and member states levels would be an important step forward. Protective border measures should also be carefully designed to avoid the EU being accused of ‘hidden protectionism’. In general, the EU and its member states should take active roles in driving forward the reform of the World Trade Organization and developing shared, sustainable trade rules for global prosperity, people, and planet.30
5. Leverage Team Europe for Global SDG Diplomacy –Strengthen Diverse and Universal Formats Especially the United Nations. In a world of multipolarity and multiple orders, the EU should turn its global role and broad networks into powerful tools of global transformation. Instead of pursuing narrow, short-sighted geopolitical and geo-economic narratives, the EU can bolster its long-term strategic autonomy by forging cooperative alliances with a diverse range of partners and aligning its external policies with the global common good, as exemplified and documented in the 2030 Agenda and its 17 SDGs.31 As the EU’s external action should not operate in a strategic vacuum, the 2016 Global Strategy needs to be reviewed and reinvigorated.32 The ‘Team Europe’ approach must move beyond being an operational toolbox for the EU’s and member states’ engagement with partners, and be transformed into an instrument of global SDG diplomacy.33 As the mission of the SDGs calls for coalitions that work across geopolitical fault lines, effective alliances for the SDGs cannot be forged solely from within the EU and the G7. Instead, the EU and its member states should jointly strive to strengthen and reform diverse and global alliances and frameworks, and especially those of the United Nations. To ensure a successful 2024 UN Summit of the Future, the EU should work closely with its co-facilitators, the Permanent Representatives of Germany and Namibia to the UN, to advance multilateralism reform in support of sustainable development and future generations, foster enablers of SDG acceleration such as digitalization and access to finance, tackle obstacles to SDG implementation, and reinforce international standards conducive to the SDGs, including Beyond GDP.34 The African Union’s full membership in the G20, turning the G20 into a G21, is a significant step towards a more inclusive global governance. The EU should work closely with the G21 presidencies of Brazil (2024) and South Africa (2025) as well as the G7 Presidencies of Italy (2024) and Canada (2025), to bring the SDG agenda back on track. Within both groups, the EU, France, Germany and Italy should form a dedicated ‘Team Europe for the SDGs’ to work towards an open and cooperative international order that advances global sustainable development.
6. Step up Europe’s Multilateral Role – Lead Global Efforts to Reform the Global Financial Architecture. The EU should significantly step up its institutional role in the global financial architecture (the complex system of public and private finance that channels the world’s savings to its investments) now and in the run-up to the fourth international conference on financing for sustainable development – the 2025 ‘Addis +10’ conference. Although the EU and its member states provide close to USD 100 billion, or more than 45%, of global Official Development Assistance, EU institutions channel just 5 to 6 percent of this to the multilateral system, and almost exclusively as earmarked funding.35 If the EU wants to strengthen a cooperative world order and live up to its ambition as a global player, it should gradually become a major, core contributor to the multilateral system, both politically and financially – from the UN Sustainable Development Group to the Multilateral Development Banks. In this context, Team Europe must take a leading role in reforming the global financial architecture. Crucial to this will be a significant increase in paid-in capital to multilateral development banks, including the World Bank, which will need to operate at a much higher scale. To ensure that existing as well as the required additional financial resources are used for sustainable investments, international finance institutions must fully integrate achieving the SDGs and safeguarding the planetary boundaries into their core mandates, and monitor these for all countries, rich and poor alike. To mobilize the financial means for a strengthened global financial architecture, global taxes to finance climate efforts and the SDGs should also be seriously considered. This idea has recently garnered some momentum, including among some European leaders and at the United Nations.36
7. Re-focus the EU’s International Partnerships on the SDGs – Move towards Mutually Transformative Cooperation. After initially committing to align its development cooperation with the SDGs, various challenges have since led the EU to deliver more short-term driven, piecemeal responses, with a shift in substantive focus that has brought its own objectives in other policy areas much more to the fore – from the external dimensions of the European Green Deal or the fight against COVID 19 to the Global Gateway Initiative as the hallmark of a ‘geopolitical Commission’. The EU has deployed significant financial, humanitarian, and emergency assistance in response to the war in Ukraine, the second-largest developing country in Europe, including creating a ‘Ukraine Facility’, while the energy crisis has led to a wave of new EU energy partnerships around the globe. Although it is commendable to see budgets being used flexibly to respond to crisis situations, this obviously undermines long-term strategic plans.37 Given the changing global landscape, it is critical to establish a new Consensus on the EU’s international partnerships towards achieving the SDGs.38 In an interconnected world, transformations both within the EU and in its relationships with global partners often depend on each other. Thus, future cooperation must progressively become mutually transformative, giving voice and means to all partners, including as part of the European financial architecture, as well as regarding policy initiatives and developments in the EU that have a significant impact on them.39 In doing so, the EU might live up to its objective of shifting from development cooperation to international partnership, and moving beyond postcolonial patterns of ‘donor-recipient relations’. Although budgets may become tighter, the EU should not walk away from its global commitments. The Global Gateway must meet its objective of mobilizing €300 billion by 2027 to support the financing of high-quality, sustainable, and SDG-focused infrastructures worldwide. Furthermore, the EU should follow the call of its High-level Expert Group for a new model for strategic engagement between the EU and partner countries to transform their respective sustainable development challenges into a mutual opportunity.40
8. Mobilize the Financial Means for Transformations toward a Sustainable Future. To finance the European Green Deal and respond to multiple crises and challenges (including the COVID pandemic, migration, the war in Ukraine and the impact of new technologies), the EU has redirected its current seven-year budget and complemented it with the NextGenerationEU financing instrument, the Recovery and Resilience Facility: amounting to a total package of more than two trillion euros.41 This financial firepower should be reinforced and used to implement the new European Deal for the Future, including enhancing its global dimension. The next Multiannual Financial Framework, for 2028–2035, must integrate, maintain, and even increase the total level of financing to sufficiently fund the required transformation deep into the next decade. Falling back to pre-pandemic budget levels would jeopardize the EU’s position as a global sustainability trailblazer. In terms of its member states, the EU Council has so far reaffirmed the Stability and Growth Pact’s reference values of a 3% deficit and 60% of GDP debt level.42 This was also reaffirmed by EU finance ministers in December 2023, who also emphasized the importance of incremental fiscal consolidation pathways and the relevance of considering investments in debt sustainability analysis. The EU fiscal rules were not designed to deal with such multiple crises and shocks, which have necessitated long-term and targeted reforms. Current and future reforms, as well as the application of EU fiscal rules for member states, must also support their transformation towards a sustainable future and promote gradual fiscal consolidation, medium-term budget perspectives linked with sustainability pathways, and fiscal transparency.
9. Institutionalize the Integration of the SDGs into Strategic Planning, Macroeconomic Coordination, Budget Processes, Research and Innovation Missions, and Other Policy Instruments. The next President of the European Commission should ask all new Commissioners to formally outline how they plan to implement the SDGs within their respective areas of responsibility, as the current President did at the beginning of her mandate. The adoption of a European Deal for the Future, with defined targets, timelines, and roadmaps to address environmental and social challenges, would provide clarity on how the EU intends to accomplish the SDGs by 2030, possibly incorporating a longer-term vision and ambitious headline targets for mid-century. As proposed in the EESC opinion on the SDGs adopted at the 25 October 2023 plenary meeting,43 this strategic document could be based on a more operational SDG framework focussing on a set of key transformations already foreshadowed in the European Green Deal and the EU’s voluntary review, supplemented by key transformations related to human and social development.44 The next European Parliament and Commission must build on and expand efforts to integrate the SDGs into various policy processes – including the European Semester (the EU’s main instrument for macroeconomic coordination), the Better Regulation agenda, European Parliament resolutions and sustainable investment directives – as well as further leveraging the excellent data and monitoring work conducted notably by Eurostat (including its environmental and ecosystem accounts)45 as well as the European Environment Agency and the Joint Research Centre. The SDGs should also be central to EU research and innovation strategies, particularly the EU Missions under Horizon Europe.46
10. Set up New Permanent Mechanisms for Structured and Meaningful Engagement with Civil Society, Including Youth, and within the European Parliament on SDG Pathways and Policies. The Multi-Stakeholder Platform on the SDGs established for 2017 to 2019 was not renewed by the current Commission, leaving a void for constructive and meaningful dialogue on SDG implementation with civil society, including trade unions, business associations, youth organisations, NGOs, and scientists. The EESC was tasked with channelling and presenting the views of civil society during the preparation of the 2023 EU voluntary review.47 We urge the next Commission to establish, with the EESC, a convening space for regular and structured civil society dialogue – encouraging the participation of companies, trade unions, youth, and grassroots civil society organizations (EESC, 2023b). Such a space could contribute to strengthening the inclusivity of EU institutions and policymaking, while bolstering public support for the SDGs. Fostering dialogue and oversight on integrated SDG policies in the European Parliament will be equally important. Building on the efforts of the informal cross- parliamentary SDG Alliance, a special committee on the SDGs and on developing a new European Deal for the Future should be established. The European Parliament should also continue to monitor the EU’s progress on the SDGs on an annual basis, via a dedicated resolution.48
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The Europe Sustainable Development Report 2023/24 is the fifth edition of our independent quantitative report on the progress of the European Union and its member states towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The report was prepared by teams of independent experts at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and SDSN Europe.
Guillaume Lafortune, Grayson Fuller, Adolf Kloke-Lesch, Phoebe Koundouri and Angelo Riccaboni (2024). European Elections, Europe’s Future and the SDGs: Europe Sustainable Development Report 2023/24. Paris: SDSN and SDSN Europe and Dublin: Dublin University Press, https://doi.org/10.25546/104407